I was in the middle of an interview when I got a phone call from a friend.
‘Planes are falling from the sky into New York and Washington,’ cried a hysterical voice. ‘Go turn on the TV.’
I hastily concluded my interview and rushed out into the street. It was eerily empty. Just an hour ago, it had been jammed with cars. I called several friends to get the latest news – nobody was answering. Everyone seemed glued to their TV sets.
Finally, Zeina picked up her phone.
‘I’m watching the news,’ she said. ‘It’s terrible. It can’t be real.’
Like the rest of the world, the Lebanese were in shock. But all too soon a new fear emerged: was an Arab involved in this?
The next few days brought the dreaded answer, and with it, another understanding. The hatred of US foreign policy in the Middle East can no longer be controlled. Arabs are enraged by the US’s biased support of Israel, by the American-made weapons that kill dozens of Palestinians with grim regularity and the US-led sanctions against Iraq that kill hundreds of children each month. But for a group living amongst us, this rage has turned into evil.
‘Everyone wants the US to change its policies,’ said a colleague. ‘But certainly not in this manner. Yes, the Americans have been killing us all these years but that doesn’t mean we should do the same thing to them.’
And then another blow came: one of the hijackers, we are told, was Lebanese. Ziad Jarrah, 26, was on board the flight which crashed in Pennsylvania.
Hesitantly, I made my way to the Bekaa Valley where the Jarrah family was spending the summer holidays. I expected a poverty-stricken village where potential suicide bombers have little going for them in life. Instead, I arrived in a mixed Sunni Muslim and Christian village with middle- to upper-class neighbourhoods. The Jarrah house was two floors high and a Mercedes was parked in front.
Still, I braced myself to be shooed away by vicious-looking people. Instead, a well-dressed man, about 60 years old with a gentle face, answered the door. Smiling weakly, he bid me in.
‘You’re here because you want to know if my son is a terrorist,’ he said introducing himself as Samir, Ziad’s father. ‘They’ve made him into a terrorist. They are calling him a terrorist. But my son would never do anything like this.’
He began to weep. ‘Where is my son?’ he cried out.
His mobile phone is constantly at his side because he believes that a call will come through clearing Ziad’s name.
‘We were about to build Ziad a house on a piece of land that I bought for him.’ Ziad was due to be married next year as soon as he earned his degree in aircraft engineering. A student at the University of Hamburg, he was spending the semester in the US taking flying lessons. The wedding clothes had already been sent to Lebanon. Ziad was last here in February where he stayed constantly at his father’s side while Samir was recovering from open-heart surgery.
‘He drinks, he parties, he had girlfriends,’ said Samir. ‘He was not a fundamentalist Muslim.’
While he lived in Lebanon, Ziad was active in social work, volunteering for a disabled association and an anti-drug youth programme.
‘Does he seem to you like a terrorist?’ asked Samir, beginning to cry again.
I had to admit that Ziad didn’t quite fit the profile. Confused, I left Samir trying to come to terms with this tragedy.
Meanwhile, funerals were held for the seven Lebanese who perished in the planes and in the World Trade Center. And then the waiting began.
‘I’m scared,’ confided my friend Anis. ‘The Americans are sure to retaliate.’
The US attacks on Afghanistan have garnered little praise from this part of the world. The region expected the US administration to ask one question: what have we done that they hate us so much?
‘But they didn’t ask it,’ exclaimed Anis. ‘They just went ahead and bombed, killing all those civilians in Afghanistan who are so poor and deprived. I don’t understand them. Don’t they want to understand the frustrations of the Arabs so they can stop these people [the terrorists]?’
It’s a good question. Unfortunately, it’s a question which remains unanswered.